Volunteering in Kerala: An Eye-Opening Experience

Our time volunteering in the state of Kerala definitely had its highs and lows, though on balance it was a positive experience. The biggest drawback was our living quarters, which were not exactly uncomfortable, but did have all the modern inconveniences. We’ve already mentioned the frequent power outages; when they occurred, it tended to get rather warm, since our only source of cooling was a (somewhat noisy) ceiling fan in each of our two rooms. And there was the fact that we had to go to an upstairs office to get online or make a call on our phone. (To keep expenses down, we don’t purchase a local SIM card when we arrive in a new location.)

It was monsoon season, so sometimes there was heavy rain that cooled things off, at least for a while. But the rains were sparse and much delayed this year; climate change is wreaking havoc everywhere.

The shower was cold water only, which generally was not so bad, considering how warm the weather usually was. A couple of times, we’d be in the middle of a shower and suddenly the water would stop. As in other Third World countries, water pumps in India feed into a tank on the roof, and tap water draws from the tank. But the tank at the school would overflow if the pump was left on for a long time, so someone would shut it off periodically to keep that from happening. That meant that we wanted to make certain it was still on before we jumped into the shower.

Living Space

Perhaps our biggest objection about our living situation was the lack of privacy. The young caretaker couple who lived next to us thought nothing of barging right in without knocking. Maybe it was just youth and bad manners on their part, maybe it was the cultural norm in the part of the country they came from, maybe it was just because we didn’t speak each other’s language. But it’s hard not to chalk up at least some of it to either rudeness or immaturity, especially since the young woman in particular would sometimes just pause outside our window and stare in. And we were reluctant to speak up about it, since there could be some serious misunderstandings that could make her angry — and she was the one serving our food, after all! And by no means did we want her or her husband to lose their jobs.

Sometimes we’d see some of the local guys traipsing through the grounds, wearing colorful traditional attire and carrying gardening tools, with which they cut weeds and so on. One day one of them shinnied up the monstrously tall tree in the back yard, and on another day they cut it down altogether. It always impressed us that they would slog through the weeds barefoot, mindless of possible snakes, broken glass, pits that plunged to the center of the earth, or other hazards.

And it’s possible that broken glass was indeed present, since there was no real garbage disposal system except to burn the stuff. Even plastic, with its toxic fumes, was dumped into a little pile and set ablaze. Fortunately, Indians produce very little garbage to dispose of. Rather than use a lot of plastic or paper food containers, they serve in and on stainless steel. Which seems like a good idea on the one hand, but on the other hand — i.e., the hand you’re holding your food in — it can get rather hot.

The containers that people use to carry grub on the go are rather ingeniously designed metal bowls with lids that stack together and are fastened into place by a flat bar that connects them all on the side. Students who bring their lunches to school use this system; at this particular school, lunch was supplied, but you might see the kids toting their snacks thus. The food in this region, by the way, is about 90 percent vegetarian, a real boon to us. (But high in saturated fat, with a lot of coconut oil and ghee, which is clarified butter.)

The Joy of Teaching Students

Despite the problems, we loved the students, the teachers, and the school director there. The director is a poet who is involved with a regional writers’ group that has published an anthology of poetry; so she and Dennis had some common ground. She’s also well-versed in world affairs. One day we had an interesting conversation with her about current events in which we mentioned how alarmed we are about the rise of fascism in America — it’s now a common occurrence to see swastikas on display at events, or hear public figures echoing Hitler or his accomplices. She replied, “yes, I know. But it’s not just America. It’s happening here too.”

This was a sobering reminder that, yes, it really is a global, rather than just an American, problem. (Not long after this, the authoritarian president of Brazil lost his election, and invoked the standard old fascist tactic of claiming fraud, which incited a mob to storm the Capitol. And Italy elected a prime minister who is an admirer of Mussolini, and represents a political faction descended from his.) Before long, there might be no place left on earth where we can go to get away from the crazy.

On the other hand, there are those encouraging words of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” So maybe if enough people like us (and “us” includes the director and her teachers) can instill in children a sense of compassion, reason and intellectual curiosity, they will grow up prepared to beat back the destructive forces that threaten their future. We can hope.

Reading Time

Meanwhile, India still seems sane enough (well, except for the traffic), at least from what we’ve seen. Chengannur is a charming little city where goats on the street are a common sight. (Interestingly, there were few cows, which as we’d learn later, are quite common on the streets of many Indian towns.) And people are extremely friendly — almost too friendly. They constantly stop you on the street to snap selfies with you. Okay, that’s not so bad. But when you go shopping, the sales clerks — sometimes more than one — will follow you around and stay at your elbow every step of the way, trying to be of help. On a couple of occasions, we had them picking products off the shelf that they recommended (based on what we’d been looking at) and put them in our cart. One fellow even tried to take the shopping list from our hand and find the items for us.

Fortunately, none of this happened when we went shopping for clothing at a store called Virus, which has a really cool sign on its front with the word Virus spelled out in letters made of recycled metal. This store was owned by our old friend Saja, who’d been chauffeuring us around; when we decided we needed some shirts, we figured we should give him the business. (Amusing and ironic footnote: when we rode with him to Kochi, he was talking about the clothing business, and he said that he really liked American clothes. Thing is, when we buy or browse clothes in America, the ones we like best tend to be made in India.)

He was delighted to see us, and his personnel were attentive and helpful when we needed help, but still gave us room to breathe. Ultimately, we bought 4 shirts and a pair of socks. The latter were a lucky find. India is not a good place for your socks to wear out — few stores sell them, because almost nobody in India wears them. And the selection at this store was extremely limited. The total bill for all of this came to about $10 (yes, the clothes were all brand new); and on top of that he offered us a discount. We told him we’d prefer to just pay full price, since he’d already been so generous. He managed to sneak in a discount at the register anyway.

Goats and other sights Around Town

And then, he insisted that we sit down and have a cup of tea with him before we left. So we sat, and one of his staff disappeared into the back to brew some tea especially for the three of us — wonderful, traditional, delicious Indian chai. Which we sat and sipped before exiting.

This is one of those customs that help make India really and truly India.

Birds in our Front Yard

June 12 - 18, 2022

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